The United States has always had its fair share of religious cults in the 242 years since it gained independence from Great Britain. From the teachings of Jim Jones and his eponymous Jonestown to the devastation of the Branch Davidians during the Waco Siege, the history of the world’s most powerful nation has been steeped in these secular groups of men and those who believe their word; for good or for ill.
Perhaps the most flamboyant of these cults was the Rajneesh movement which existed in the USA between 1981 and 1985. Unlike most cults, the Rajneesh movement placed emphasis on the importance of meditation, awareness, love, celebration, courage, creativity, and humour—qualities that he viewed as being suppressed by adherence to static belief systems, religious tradition, and socialisation. As such, his advocacy of wealth and luxury items meant that there was only one true symbol of affluence that could immediately spring to mind; a Rolls-Royce.
However, the tastes of the Rajneesh movement and its eccentric leader Chandra Mohan Jain didn’t just extend to one Rolls-Royce, but dozens of them. In fact, by the time the cult left the US shores in 1985, Jain was the largest single-owner of Rolls-Royce cars in the world.
So where exactly did the Rajneesh come from and how did he get so many Rollers?
To understand this, we need to start with the man who founded it in the first place, Chandra Mohan Jain. Born in 1931, when India was still a colony of the UK, Jain first found he had a knack for public speaking when he was a lecturer and later professor of philosophy at Jabalpur University. He lectured throughout India during the 1960’s, promoting meditation and the ideals of free love, concepts which struck a chord during this period of radical social change as the Hippie and Peace movements reached the peak of their influence. He was a vocal critic of religious constraints, socialism and tradition, instead being a a fervent believer in capitalism, science, technology and birth control, warning against overpopulation and criticising religious teachings that promote poverty and subjection.
By 1970, he had gathered enough followers to form what became the Rajneesh movement. His drive to defy tradition and embrace modern technology put him at odds with the Indian government and its most prominent religions, who saw his teachings as blasphemy. However, the movement’s desire to remove the shackles of religion meant that by 1979 there were approximately 100,000 followers of the cult. With donations from so many followers, Jain, who had now adopted the title of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, was made incredibly wealthy. Therefore, no other status symbol could suffice more than the purchase of designer items and luxury goods.
In one Indian tradition he was willing to follow, the Rajneesh took a leaf from the books of the Maharajas and bought himself what was initially a small fleet of Rolls-Royces in 1979. Prior to this, the Rajneesh had driven the 150-yard commute from his house to the original Ashram commune in a chauffeur driven Mercedes-Benz, but soon upgraded this to a Rolls-Royce when he found the Merc simply didn’t emphasise luxury enough. His adoration of Rolls-Royce cars he attributed to their ability to allow him, in his own words, to “ride in a tranquillity that compares with the peace by Buddha.”
In 1980, a failed assassination attempt resulted in his followers purchasing for him a late-model Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith II. However, unlike most Silver Wraith II’s, which were already Long-Wheel Base versions of the more mundane Silver Shadow, the Rajneesh had the car lengthened by a company in Florida, before fitting the car with Level-Five armour plating to defend the cult leader from even the most determined would-be assassin. The interior of the car was also notable for being fully customised to suit his needs, bringing the overall cost of this lavish mobile fortress to $302,500; $914,000 in today’s money.
However, the Rajneesh movement’s tenure in India was short-lived, as the cult’s continual defiance of tradition led to continued tensions with the then ruling party, the Janata Party government of Morarji Desai. Criticism of their activities and threatened punitive action by the Indian authorities, as well as the attempted assasination, prompted the movement of the cult from India to a new commune in the United States. Under the guise of visiting America for medical treatment, the Rajneesh used his time in the States to broker a deal to buy a tract of land in Wasco County, Oregon, which was done on his behalf by John Shelfer, husband of the cult’s secretary Ma Anand Sheela. In all, the cost of purchasing the 64,229-acre site came to $5.75 million, a clear sign of the Rajneesh’s wealth.
Though the move was controversial, with local residents and government opposing the arrival of a religious cult in their neighbourhood, the commune was able to turn what was rural wasteland, formerly the Big Muddy Ranch, into a small city in the space of about a year, with a peak population of 7,000 inhabitants. When they weren’t throwing parties or having morning meditations, the followers of the Rajneesh, known as Rajneeshees, built a fully functioning settlement largely comparable to most small US towns, including new buildings, roads, and even a small airport with a fleet of Douglas DC-3 and Convair 240 aircraft. The group were even able to build themselves a reservoir in order to turn the arid Oregon wastes into a land thriving with vegetation.
Of course, with his move to the USA came his armour plated Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith II, but the lonely life of this luxury machine would soon be made brighter by the arrival of many other products from the Crewe plant. At a rate of two new cars per month, the purpose built stables at Rancho Rajneesh began to fill up with a wide variety of brand new Rolls-Royce Silver Spirits and Silver Spurs of all shapes and sizes, as well as a few of the rare and controversial Rolls-Royce Camargue’s. As generous donations to their venerable leader, and with his affection for Rolls-Royce cars being the very staple of his character, his followers intended to buy the man 365 Rolls-Royce cars; one for every day of the year.
With his Rolls-Royces, the Rajneesh would perform a daily slow driveby of his followers in what could be likened to a parade inspection at a military barracks. With his followers lining the streets of their new town, the Rajneesh would slowly trundle up and down as Rajneeshees threw wreaths and flowers over the luxury car as it went by. Most notably, the Rajneesh chose to defy tradition further by painting his cars in a slew of strange colour schemes, including vibrant flashing hues, traditional Indian patterns and other wild looks. In the end, while the goal of 365 Rolls-Royces was not met, the Rajneesh did eventually take on a supply of 93 Rolls-Royces comprised of Silver Spirits, Silver Spurs, Corniches, Camargues and his custom-built Silver Wraith II. This made the Rajneesh the largest single-owner of Rolls-Royce cars in the world, his purchases comprising 2% of the 1,100 Rolls-Royce cars that were shipped to the USA per annum.
Security was still a major issue for the Rajneesh, as even the ‘Land of the Free’ proved to be just as hostile as India. In 1983, a Rajneesh reception at a Portland hotel was bombed by Islamic militants, primarily due to the group’s Indian connections. As such, the Rajneesh had many of his Rollers retrofitted with armour plating, bulletproof windows and a teargas gun in the bumper!
His personal favourite, however, was the Silver Spur, due largely to its comforting ride being ideal for his somewhat fragile body. The Rajneesh had been stricken with multiple health issues throughout his life; being diabetic, asthmatic and suffering from numerous allergies. In later life he suffered chronic back pain, but the hydraulic self-levelling suspension of the Silver Spur was perfect for alleviating these problems.
However, while the Rajneesh had prided himself on his public speaking, the great irony came in the fact that in 1980 he had taken a vow of silence, would rarely interact with his disciples and essentially became a recluse on his compound. The only times he would ever be seen by a majority of his followers would be during his daily driveby, though he never addressed the people during these instances. Eventually, his vow was broken in 1984, but by this time it was evident that the Rajneesh movement was facing its inevitable breakup.
As the movement gained further influence in the United States, higher ranking officials, particularly Ma Anand Sheela, began to take a more confrontational attitude towards the local government. Problems reached their peak when, in 1984, the Rajneeshees, under the command of Sheela, launched a bioterror attack on the nearby American community of The Dalles. The reason for this attack came from the US Government’s unwillingness to legally support Rancho Rajneesh, thus she and several associates spread a strain of salmonella across salad restaurants and eateries all over the region. The result was over 700 people being taken ill, the first and single largest biological attack on the United States.
Seeing that the Rajneesh movement, which had been created to spread peace and social ideals, had become corrupted by people who would stop at nothing to gain power, the Rajneesh himself named several of his higher-ranking followers as the culprits behind the attack. He further implicated them in an assassination attempt on a United States Attorney, with which he gave the FBI full cooperation in their investigation. Sheela fled to Germany but was eventually arrested and given a jail sentence of 20 years for attempted murder; though she was paroled after two.
Finally, the Rajneesh pleaded guilty to charges pressed against him regarding illegal immigration, a legal battle he’d been fighting since his arrival in 1981. With this, the Rajneesh departed the U.S. shores and his movement quickly disintegrated. The Rajneesh himself, continuing to suffer from his many ailments, eventually passed away in January 1990, aged 58.
But what of his extensive fleet of Rolls-Royces?
Following the departure of the Rajneesh, the cars, along with everything else that had belonged to the Rajneesh settlement, were put up for auction. After inspecting the collection, Texas collector-dealer Robert “Bob” Roethlisberger and his attorney partner bought the cars en masse for approximately $6 million. He would eventually take purchase of 85 examples, having them shipped to his Texas home on 12 large bi-level car haulers. With the cars now in his collection, he proceeded to auction them off to various collectors; those who were interested in the idea of owning a car once driven by such a controversial figure in American history.
The cars became 15-minute celebrities, the highly publicised bioterror attack, breakup of the cult and deportation of the Rajneesh being major stories between 1984 and 1986. The Rajneesh had often used his extensive Rolls-Royce collection as a major promotion for his movement, photographs of the machines being widely distributed. As such, they were instantly recognisable and whenever one was sold it was immediately something newsworthy. Journalists would swarm to see which lucky man or woman would drive home in the Rolls of the Rajneesh. Roethlisberger tragically passed away in 1986 from cancer at the untimely age of 40, but by the time of his passing he had sold 43 of the cars at prices between $65,000 and $100,000.
The fate of these cars, however, is now a mystery to many car enthusiasts like myself. As the story of the Rajneesh faded into obscurity amid the background of more significant events the notoriety of these vehicles has gradually faded too. Some occasionally pop up at car auctions or are sold through dealers, but one can only assume that many have been scrapped, stored or modified beyond recognition.
How many of these magnificent machines are left is a matter of debate, but what is certain is that the Rolls-Royces of the strange and controversial Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh will forever hold a place in the annuls of motoring history; the luxury chariots of the ‘Rolls-Royce Guru’.